BILL WATCH 27-2016

BILL WATCH 27/2016

[27th June 2016]

The National Assembly Will Sit Again on Tuesday 28th June

The Senate is in Recess until Tuesday 12th July [although it may be recalled]

Controversy over Local Government Laws Amendment Bill

This Bill was gazetted on the 9th May.  On 7th June it was introduced in the National Assembly by the Minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing, given its First Reading and referred to the Parliamentary Legal Committee [PLC] for its report on whether or not the Bill would, if enacted, be consistent with the Constitution.  

The Bill immediately turned out to be highly contentious—

First, it is incomplete.  Although there is much in the Urban Councils Act and the Rural District Councils Act requiring substantive alignment with the Constitution, the Bill tackles only one aspect of the problem – the procedure for the suspension and removal from office of mayors and councillors.  It leaves all other existing aspects of aligning the two Acts to be dealt with later.  This is unfortunate as there has already been a three-year delay.    

Second, the Bill’s proposed provisions for the suspension and removal from office of mayors and councillors are regarded by many as seriously inconsistent with the Constitution’s provisions on the subject of local government autonomy [Constitution, Chapter 14, particularly 278].  

[See Constitution Watch 9/2016 of 4th June and Constitution Watch 10/2016 of 5th June for details.]

It was obvious from day one, therefore, that the Bill would require careful consideration by the PLC – and that much would hang on the PLC’s report.  An adverse report was clearly a possibility, given the widespread feeling that the Bill is not compliant with the Constitution.  But an adverse report would delay progress.  A non-adverse report, on the other hand, would clear the way for Government to get the Bill through Parliament without delay, using its substantial majority to overcome all opposition.  

Also obvious was that it would be essential for Parliament to conduct public hearings on the Bill on a countrywide basis, in order to give effect to its constitutional obligation to consult the public on proposed legislation [Constitution, section 141].  This would be a task for a portfolio committee or committees, who would then report to the National Assembly on public sentiment during the Second Reading debate on the Bill.

Public Hearings on the Bill

Public hearings on the Bill were duly scheduled, to be held by two teams of MPs from the Portfolio Committee on Local Government from Monday 13th to Friday 17th June.  Public protests about the omission of Matabeleland North and South resulted in the programme being extended to include hearings in both those provinces on Tuesday 21st and Wednesday 23rd June [see Bill Watch Parliamentary Committee Series 22/2016 of 6th June and 25/2016 of 20th June].  Given that the 2016 Parliamentary Sitting Calendar schedules a recess for both Houses from 25th June to 12th July, the revised public hearings programme conveyed the impression that it would not be possible for a report on the public hearings to be ready for presentation before 12th July.

Rowdiness and violence at hearings  The initial hearings in places like Karoi, Chinhoyi, Mutare, Masvingo, Gweru and Bulawayo were orderly, with opponents of the Bill predominating and able to present their submissions relatively undisturbed.  It was an entirely different story in other places.  The hearing at the Conference Centre in central Harare was disrupted by rowdy behaviour, intimidation, shouting-down of opponents of the Bill and violence which resulted in injuries requiring medical treatment.  It was clear to observers that many of those responsible for the disruption had been bussed in from outside Harare to disturb the proceedings.  The hearing the following day at Zimbabwe Hall, Highfield had to be abandoned because of clashes between rival groups.  

Preparations for Fast Tracking the Bill and

Controversy over Parliament Legal Committee Report

Tuesday 21st June afternoon – The Minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing, Hon Kasukuwere, as Minister responsible for the Bill, told the House he intended to introduce a motion to suspend certain Standing Orders in respect of the Bill – thereby signalling the Government’s intention that the Bill be ”fast-tracked”.  The motion was on the Order Paper for the following day; the Standing Orders listed for suspension were

- those laying down time limits for PLC reports.  [Normally under Standing Orders the PLC should have had until 14th July to report back to the National Assembly, with an option of extension by the Speaker in case of need.]

- those requiring different stages of Bills to be taken on separate days.  [Suspension would mean that  all stages of the Bill could be taken on the same day.]

Wednesday 22nd June afternoon – Hon Gonese protested on the floor of the National Assembly about what he called a “purported” PLC meeting on the Bill said to have been held on - the previous morning without two of its members [himself and Hon Majome, both lawyers] and to have agreed on a non-adverse report on the Bill.  This was despite the following facts:

- the chairperson and other PLC members had been informed that he and Hon Majome were of the view that the Bill infringed the Constitution [which meant that under Standing Orders detailed discussion at a properly convened meeting was mandatory]

- Hon Majome was away from Harare on Parliament business [the concluding public  hearings on this very Bill]

- that other Parliamentary duties prevented both himself and Hon Majome being available for a PLC meeting until Monday 27th June.

He also argued that the Minister’s notice of motion to fast-track the Bill was premature, having been given before receipt of the PLC report, and should therefore not be entertained.  

The Deputy Speaker promised a ruling.  

Thursday 23rd June morning – A PLC meeting took place and approved a non-adverse report on the Bill.  Again the meeting took place without Hon Gonese and Hon Majome, who were both absent on Parliamentary business.

Thursday 23rd June afternoon – The Speaker made an announcement that he had received a non-adverse report from the PLC on the Bill.  Opposition MPs protested that there had not been a ruling on Mr Gonese’s objections.  The Speaker put an end to these protests with the following ruling:  “In terms of Standing Order No. 40, a meeting of the Parliamentary Legal Committee was convened on Thursday 23rd June, 2016 after Members were served with notices on Wednesday, 22nd June, 2016 as required by the Standing Orders. The Committee with a full quorum [three] had met and reached its decision, resulting in the issuance of a non adverse report on the Local Government Laws Amendment Bill.”  The ruling did not mention an understanding reached the previous day that the PLC would meet again on Monday 27th June. 

Note: there are discrepancies between Hansard and Votes and Proceedings recordings of what happened that afternoon in the House.

Was the Non-Adverse Report Unprocedurally Obtained?

During the heated protests over the receipt of the PLC’s non-adverse report in the National Assembly on Thursday 23rd June, one Opposition MP said that the PLC’s handling of the Bill meant ZANU PF was “smuggling” its Bill into Parliament.  Was that a fair description?  

Parliament’s official line as reflected in the Speaker’s ruling was that, whatever the status of the PLC meeting on Wednesday 22nd June [the one that Hon Gonese described as “purported”], the Thursday PLC meeting had been validly constituted after the requisite notice to all members, and that its non-adverse report would stand.   [Standing Orders provide that written notice must be given “a day before” an arranged meeting.].  And the three ZANU-PF members of the committee were sufficient to constitute a quorum.  

But the real burden of the Opposition complaint is clearly on the unfairness of a hurriedly-called meeting when it was known that Hon Gonese and Hon Majome had views they wished the Committee to consider and discuss, as required by Standing Orders, and that they had been allowed to believe that the next PLC meeting would not be until Monday 27th June, when they would be available.

The Effect of the PLC Non-Adverse Report

As things stand, therefore, the PLC’s non-adverse report on the Bill forms part of the Parliamentary record – which means that the Government is now in a position to go ahead with the Bill.  An adverse report would have held things up, as explained earlier.

The National Assembly will meet again tomorrow, Tuesday 28th June.  Item 1 on the Order Paper is the Minister’s motion to fast-track the Bill.  Given the ZANU-PF majority, he should have no difficulty in persuading the House to pass both the resolution and the Bill.

If the Bill is fast-tracked there will be insufficient time for the Portfolio Committee to assess the public hearings and prepare its report on the Bill, and there will not be enough time for the House to consider any report the Committee may produce.

Fast tracking of Bills is always to be deplored except in the case of a real emergency.  A Bill awaited for three years cannot be considered an emergency.  The Constitution makes provision for public involvement in the legislative process.  This is not only a necessary exercise but an expensive one.  The constitutional provision will be nullified, and all the expense incurred in public hearings on the Bill will go to waste, if the Portfolio Committee is not given enough time to prepare its report and if the National Assembly is not allowed enough time to consider the report.

Senate to be recalled from recess?

The Senate has adjourned for a two-week recess, with its next sitting scheduled for Tuesday 12th July.  If the Government succeeds in its plan to push the Bill through the National Assembly and is not prepared to wait until the 12th July, the Senate can be recalled from its recess for a special sitting to deal with the Bill [The Constitution, section 146, allows a recall to conduct “special business”].


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